Set design for an 1824 performance of Semiramide in Milan (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Almost two month’s ago PBS aired a telecast of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Semiramide as the latest program in its Great Performances at the Met series, which is now in its twelfth season. This opera was first performed on February 3, 1823 at La Fenice in Venice, and it was the last opera Rossini composed in Italy before moving to Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life. The libretto was written by Gaetano Rossi, drawing upon Semiramis, a tragedy by Voltaire based on a legend about an Assyrian queen of the same name.
From a musical point of view, Semiramide is practically a textbook example of Rossini’s approach to the bel canto vocal style. The term “bel canto” originated in the eighteenth century. While its original meaning involved “emphasis on beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion” (as Willi Apel put it in the Harvard Dictionary of Music), it might be said that Rossini was a pioneer in “pushing the envelope” of flamboyant technique while trying to maintain the dramatic context in which that technique was exercised.
That effort to strike a balance between seemingly opposing priorities was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, Rossini came up with some notable successes, particularly in his early comedies, such as The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and La Cenerentola. However, when it came to tragedy, his skills were not quite as sharp; and, in some ways, Semiramide is a case study in Rossini’s shortcomings in bringing tragedy to the opera stage.
Consider the overture, which, in many ways, is almost as popular as the overture he wrote for William Tell. That popularity has much to do with the lightness of touch that pervades the overall rhetoric of the music, a lightness that suggests that what is to follow will be as delightful as romp as one expects when going to see The Barber of Seville. As might be guessed, Voltaire’s tragedy is about as far from such a romp as can be imagined; but the rhetoric of the music throughout the two acts of Semiramide never seems to let go of the “sunny disposition” of the overture. Thus, we have a queen (the title character), warriors, and priests (not to mention a ghost) singing about power, intrigues, and revenge, all while the ensemble in the orchestra might just as well be playing for an English garden party.
However, this is where the bel canto style figures as so important. Ultimately, the bel canto tradition assumes that people go to the opera (and, by 1823, that meant “people pay to go to the opera”) to hear “pretty voices.” What those voices are singing is secondary to any concerns for whether the rhetoric of the music is consistent with the rhetoric of the text. To warp the words of William Shakespeare, the question of “What is Semiramis to a member of the audience?” simply did not signify.
This poses a major challenge for how operas tend to be staged today. Of course audiences still want to be dazzled by awe-inspiring technical feats by the vocalists; but I would be bold enough to suggest that technical razzle-dazzle now tends to be viewed as icing, rather than cake. A pastry that is all icing and no cake is not particularly appetizing (or, for that matter, healthy).
In that perspective John Copley had his work cut out for him in staging Semiramide. He could not allow the underlying narrative to move along at a more rapid pace without compromising Rossini’s score, which allowed just about every vocalist with a solo part to strut his/her bel canto stuff at the drop of a hat. (Note that each such “strut” also allowed members of the audience to bring what action there was to a halt with sustained repetitions of “Bravo!”) On the basis of the PBS telecast, it would appear that Conklin’s solution was to find ways to match the visual with the vocal, so to speak. Thus he had both Set Designer John Conklin and Costume Designer Michael Stennett flood the stage with eye candy, in the hope that, should a member of the audience experience some fatigue from exposure to one exorbitant bel canto turn after another, (s)he could turn to the imagery for an alternative diversion.
In some ways all this is a bit unfair, to Voltaire if not to anyone else. While the revenge theme of the plot is a bit convoluted, it plays out the details in such a way that the viewer is often guessing about just where things are going. (Disclaimer: I made it a point to avoid reading any summary of the plot before watching my recording of this telecast. I take a very dim view of a libretto that lacks the literary basics to speak for itself. Now that titles relieve me of the problem of understanding the words, I find that my approach to an opera experience has definitely changed for the better, particularly where the role of the text is concerned.) Presumably Rossini’s audiences were not concerned about such a guessing game, at least where tragedy was concerned. Enjoying the pretty voices was enough for them!
As to the performance that PBS broadcast, I would say that the bel canto skills of all of the vocalists were not consistently up to snuff. This should not be a surprise given the number of hoops through which any of them are required to jump. For this reason I do not wish to call out any individual names. (Those interested in cast details will find them at the other end of the first hyperlink in the text of this article.)
On the other hand I do want to single out the name of the PBS Music Producer Tim Martyn. I was, on the whole, consistently satisfied with the efforts of conductor Maurizio Benini. Rossini provided him with generous instrumental interludes, which he treated as seriously as accompanying the vocalists, if not more so.
However, the ways in which Benini managed his instrumental resources were not always easy to recognize, simply because the overall balance was out of whack more often than not. A few camera pans across the orchestra pit suggest that this may have been a product of microphone placement that was dangerously arbitrary. Martyn never seemed to recognize that what happens in the pit is often just as interesting as what happens on stage, meaning that there were too many instances when Rossini’s skills at instrumentation were undermined.